Question: What is the reality of sin and how does it affect the soul and psyche of the human being?
Sin—the ‘Arabic equivalents of which are ithm and ‘isyan—signifies disobeying the injunctions of the Lord and the failure to comply with His wishes. In other words, the committing of an action which is displeasing to the Lord, the Creator, (due to the harm it entails) or to avoid an action that has been obligated by Him (due to the benefit it entails). Hence, sin is contradictory to the spirit of obedience.
In essence, the sinner has deposed the rightful king of his faculties—in wit, reason—and has supplanted it with desire and anger, which should be in the service of reason. When desire and anger have taken power as the rulers of the soul, they will be the sinner’s beloved. Thus, whatever, he wishes to do must be pleasing either to desire or to anger, and it is for this reason that he commits sin.
The above question must be answered in four parts.
Sin, which in ‘Arabic is referred to as ithm and ‘isyan, means to disobey the order of the Master and to slip in complying with His wishes. The sinful individual, in lieu of following the dictates of reason, obeys his desire and anger, which means that he may commit any sin imaginable, which if he does, he has actually betrayed himself. Sin is the snare of Satan. The inner reality of sin is fire while on the outside it deceives the individual by a fleeting sense of pleasure and lust, in temptation of which the oblivious human being incurs Divine chastisement.
Sin entails harmful consequences for the individual as well as for society at large. Its consequences for the individual are, among others: the darkening and hardening of one’s heart; depriving the sinner of knowledge of the Divine secrets and gnosis; the transformation of the heart into a niche for Satan; being barred from self-knowledge; relinquishing the pleasure of Divine conversation; the invalidation of the sinner’s worship; leading the sinner to denying the hereafter and Allah’s (awj) reward and punishment.
The social repercussions of sin consist of the decadence and retrogression of the sinful society, although it might appear as though it is headed in the direction of progress. For, in reality, such a society is drawing near to its extinction due to neglecting human and moral values.
Religious authorities arraign ignorance and obliviousness as the main causes for sin. The most effective tactic of an enemy and its first means of infiltration is to distract its opposing party. Ignorance is the fountainhead of corruption—ignorance of the existential values of humanity, of the valuable results of sexual purity (‘iffah), of the effects of sin, etc.
Several ways can be enumerated here:
1. Repentance (which is returning to Allah (awj) with the resolute intention of abstaining from sin and which encompasses a multitude of grades) and pleading for forgiveness.
2. Reminding oneself of one’s sins.
3. The remembrance of Allah (awj).
4. A resolved will [to remain on the straight path].
Thus, after the clarification of the meaning of sin and the other related issues, attributing sin to Allah (awj) becomes meaningless. The issues of guidance, being led astray, and the variations in the natures of human beings in creation will be dealt with separately.
In the ahadith related from the Ahlul Bayt (ع), material attachments and sins are described as snares of Satan. That is, sins are traps with which Satan hunts human beings and ropes with which he enthrals them. Of course these ropes are multitudinous, colourful, and come in different sizes. Satan lures every person in a special way. Some he entraps with wealth, some with positions of power, and others by exploiting their sexual drive.
The flames of Hell are intertwined with sinful and lustful pleasures; that is, the interior of the snare is fire and the exterior is pleasure, and the human being falls in the trap in the vain attempt to reach the apparent pleasures.1
The consequences of sin can be divided into those that befall the individual and those that pertain to society. The consequences of sin for the individual are:
1. It contaminates and pollutes the soul. The sinner neither enjoys a beneficial sleep in which he would attain any knowledge in the form of a truthful dream, neither does he acquire any gnosis in his waking life, nor does he find the opportunity to benefit others by teaching them something useful to them. Therefore, if the soul—the soul which Allah (awj) designated as the recipient of Divine revelation and by which He swears in His book—is darkened, many secrets would be withheld from it. If it is said that the spiritual journeyer should be reticent and careful of what he eats, it is so that he would be able to hear the Divine afflatus, for if one desires to hear the inner voice, he must himself keep quiet.
2. When one pledges allegiance to Satan, submitting to his temptations, his heart gradually metamorphoses into the dwelling of Satan, becoming his host; and this is a reality expressed by the Qur`an.2 The heart of a liar is the abode of Satan. But he who is honest in his knowledge and is also faithful in the financial trusts that are made to him, the heart of such an individual is too pure to host Satan.
3. Sin is a veil that prevents self-knowledge. The human being forgets Allah (awj) as a result of his sins and this forgetting of Allah (awj) obstructs the acquisition of self-knowledge.3 When one capitulates to corruption, he has forfeited his life eternally and has enthralled himself, after which nothing, not even the flames of Hell, can emancipate, for although fire has the potency to melt metal, but if the metal is fiery, that is to say if it is fire solidified, then nothing can melt it.
4. Another entailment of sin is that the sinner is deprived from enjoying the pleasures of worship, and so he always wishes that he could enjoy his worship, but due to his sins and hardheartedness, he has extirpated the capacity of his heart [for such spiritual joys]. Shaykh as-Saduq narrates in his valuable work al-Tawhid that the eighth Imam, ‘Ali b. Musa al-Rida (ع) was on one occasion asked, “Why is Allah veiled?” in whose response, the Imam said, “He is not veiled. That you do not see Him is due to the excess of your sins, which like a veil, blinds your heart to witnessing [Allah].”4
5. In the corpus of ahadith, the topic of the veiling of sins is abundantly treated. For instance, in one hadith, the Prophet (ص) is narrated as having said, “When one commits a sin, a black speck appears on his heart. If he disowns it and repents, his heart will be purified. But if he repeats the sin, the spot spreads, until it overtakes the entire heart.”5
6. In another hadith, he is recorded as having said, “The excess of sins destroys the heart.”
7. Imam Ja’far b. Muhammad as-Sadiq (ع) says, “There is nothing more destructive to the heart than sin. Sin affects the heart and eventually overwhelms it.”6
8. Another hadith related from the latter reads, “I advise you to be pious, to abstain from sin, and to be diligent in the course of worship. Be aware; worship without abstaining from sin is sterile.”7
9. A Prophetic hadith addressed to Abu Dharr reads, “O Abu Dharr, the crux of religion is abstaining from sin and the secret of religion is obedience to Allah. Beware that should you pray to the extent that your back bends like a bow and fast until you are as thin as an arrow—such worship would not avail you unless it is coupled with abstaining from sin. O Abu Dharr, those who have relinquished the forbidden pleasures of this world and have taken up ascetic lives, they are indeed the friends of Allah.”8
10. The Denial of the Hereafter. Sin obstructs the knowledge of the hereafter from taking effect. That is, it is possible that one be certain of the hereafter, but that certainty be buried under multitudinous layers of lustful pollutions, such as that would render that certainty futile.9
In Surat al-Mutaffifin, the Qur`an mentions those who utterly deny the hereafter, then it says, “Woe to deniers on that day, who deny the day of retribution; and none denies it except every sinful transgressor. When Our signs are recited to him, he says,
‘Myths of the ancients.’ No indeed their hearts have been sullied by what they have been earning.10”
It can be clearly inferred from these verses that sin ruins the lustre of the heart, such that spiritual truths are not reflected in that originally Divine mirror. Otherwise, the signs of the Truth, especially in regard to the Origin and the Destination are clear and obvious.
Sin leads to social decadence and the increase of crime. It hinders even the activities of the effective individuals of society due to the far-reaching consequences of sin, thus obstructing the progress of that society.
The most effective of weapons of an enemy and the quickest way for the enemy to infiltrate is by heedlessness. If Satan succeeds in making human being heedless, then there is no need for him to make the extra effort of deceiving the human being by compound ignorance. If by Satan’s temptations, the righteous thought is effaced from one’s mind, Satan will be at ease. Ignorance is the fountainhead of the spreading of corruption.
The verses pertaining to the story of Yusuf (ع) illustrate that sinful love and sexual perversion stem from ignorance: ignorance of the existential values of humanity, of the valuable results of sexual purity and moderation, of the repercussions of sin and ultimately ignorance of the injunctions of Allah (awj).
Several methods may be mentioned for extrication from sin:
1. Repentance and pleading for forgiveness. Tawbah (repentance) literally means “to return.” When a servant returns to his master, it is said that he has done tawbah. The Most Sacred Essence in the Qur`an exhorts all believers to repent.
2. Remembering One’s Sins.
3. The Remembrance of Allah (awj).
4. The Human Will Factor.